After every British election, the number of seats won by each party does not conform to their vote share. This, of course, is a result of first past the post (FPTP). This system dictates that whatever candidate gets the most votes within their district wins, no majority required. Almost always, this system produces results that are disparate with the share of the vote the parties have earned.
Because most developed democracies do not use this system, debates about reforms to the UK system abound. One of the most widely used alternatives is proportional representation (PR). This system allocates seats to parties based on what percent of the vote they received. While it does not safeguard against every possible challenge, proportional representation does counter most of the problems associated with the current FPTP system.
Problems With FPTP
The shortcomings of FPTP are many. The most obvious reason is that it produces outcomes that do not reflect the voters’ prefrences. For example, the Conservatives won only 43.6% of the vote in 2019, but a huge majority of the seats. Conversely, UKIP won 12.6% of the vote in 2015, but only one seat.
It’s easy to wonder why, in a democracy, a party should be able to win more voters but lose power. Especially in the UK, it makes little sense for Parliament’s immense authority to be awarded by a minority of voters. Additionally, there is no consistent pattern to which party benefits from this disparity. The benefits of FPTP are awarded to whatever party has a more efficient geographic distribution of their votes.
The constituency level results for Brexit provide an example of this. “Leave” received only 52% of the vote, but because “Remain” got huge margins in the places where it won, “Leave” won in 64% of constituencies. The 2019 General Election also shows this problem. The Conservatives gained 1.3% over their vote share from 2017, but because they gained the most in marginals, they went from controlling 49% of the seats to 56% of the seats. In this case, the system was valuing some votes more than others simply based on how the boundaries were drawn.
Furthermore, in a FPTP system, it is functionally impossible to solve this problem. There is no way to predict exactly how each party’s coalition and distribution of votes will change election to election. Even a map that was perfect for the last time may end up being completely unfair the next.
Duverger’s Law establishes that when voters face a winner-take-all election, they will, over time, dwindle their choices down to two viable options. While the Liberal Democrats, SNP, and Plaid Cymru do defy this to a certain extent in the UK, it is exceedingly rare to see constituencies in which it is truly a three-way race. Races are almost always marginals between two parties. In fact, in Britain’s 25 most marginal constituencies, the top two parties averaged a combined vote share of 84.3%. Once the two major parties are entrenched, they will never reform the system, as doing so would reduce their power. This essentially pre-ordains the number of viable parties in the UK or any other country which uses FPTP.
Furthermore, scholars believe that politicians who need to win a majority of votes or close to it will focus on moving their views closer to the center of the electorate. This may create stability, but again, it prescribes, in advance, that voters will be picking from parties whose politicians focus on consensus politics. More radical options must first win within a party to give voters that choice. Lastly, two-party politics means power rotates consistently between two options. This fosters the creation of unelected networks of bureaucrats that accumulate large amounts of power over time. Nothing will break up or supplant this network because everyone that is part of it knows their party will come back to power soon.
The Solution – Proportional Representation
Proportional representation as a system contains virtually none of the intractable problems that exist within an FPTP system. Parties earn seats based on the percentage of votes they receive. Some countries simply use the entire nation as a single constituency and allocate seats purely on this basis. Israel uses this type of system, although they require parties to receive 3.25% of the vote to enter the Knesset.
Other countries, such as Spain, divide the country into large constituencies that elect representatives proportionally at the regional level. Germany even goes so far as to have its voters elect a representative for a constituency, similar to the UK, but then asks them to cast a nationwide vote for a party as well. They then adjust the number of seats in the Bundestag to make sure the result is proportional. Regardless of the specifics, all of these systems produce largely proportional outcomes. Because of this, voters never feel forced to whittle down their choices as a matter of necessity.
Proportional representation keeps some voters from being more important than others in determining who holds power. It also encourages the development of more ideologically diverse parties that usually must form coalitions. This gives voters more choice, keeps power rotating between different groups instead of the same two, and allows for new parties to more easily gain a foothold. Thus, under a PR system, it’s harder for unelected bureaucrats to amass as much durable power and influence.
Criticisms of Proportional Representation
One criticism of PR is that it produces fractured governments that cannot rule effectively while FPTP produces strong governments. This criticism is weak because FPTP governments get their “strength” from some voters arbitrarily having more influence than others. While Spain and Israel have recently become hopelessly gridlocked after PR elections, this is not the norm. These situations arose out of specific sets of social circumstances that most countries, including the UK, do not replicate. Israeli voting patterns divide sharply along ethnic and religious lines. In Spain, regionalist parties with unworkable demands and politically toxic reputations held the balance of power. These factors do not appear in the UK.
The SNP, the most powerful regional party, was not preparing to make unworkable demands to Labour if they were kingmakers last time around. Additionally, there is nothing preventing FPTP systems from producing closely divided governments. Even if it did prevent this, FPTP would be an even poorer system for the deeply divided societies where PR produces close elections. Scholar Arend Lijphart argues that any type of winner-take-all system creates even deeper and more bitter divides as groups feel excluded and ignored. This is especially exacerbated when one group begins to hold control over the others because the FPTP system favors them. In truly divided societies, this scenario can lead to corruption, autocracy, and even ethnic discrimination as groups try to win at all costs. FPTP is not better for divided societies, it is worse.
Maintaining Local Representation
The second most common criticism of PR is that it removes the link voters have to their representatives. However, this is not necessarily true of proportional representation. Many PR systems can still have constituencies but also a proportional nationwide vote, such as in Germany. Even Scotland and Wales use a modified version of the German system to elect their devolved parliaments, so the transition for Westminster would be practical. Additionally, the UK’s political system is based around strong parties that maintain discipline in key votes and issues. This is exactly the opposite of giving more autonomy to representatives or allowing them to break from the party to better serve their constituents.
For as long as anyone can remember, British elections have been fought in a FPTP system. But modern democracy clearly demands something different. Election after election produces a disparate result in which a party selected by a minority of voters wields broad power with a large majority of seats. Proportional representation solves this problem and many others inherent in FPTP, but never gains traction. This is because FPTP incentivizes a two-party system, while PR incentivizes a multi-party system. Therefore, the two main parties that have evolved as such thanks to FPTP never seriously consider voting to reduce their power.
Proportional representation would benefit British politics. It would produce fairer outcomes, more political diversity, and reduce the influence of unelected cliques. The common criticisms of the system do not hold water. PR systems do not tend to produce narrowly divided and ineffective governments, and certain types of it can even maintain a constituency link. Even if Conservatives and Labour are united in their opposition to this system, its implementation would benefit the United Kingdom.